Judith Butler | Notes from Judith Butler

By Judith Butler

Foucault’s lectures, Mal faire, dire vrai (Wrong Doing/Truth Telling) tell a history of the practice of avowal in a very quick way, jumping from one set of historical periods to another, developing generalizations that are said to hold from classical Greece through to the present. Indeed, the book presents itself an impossible task, so it makes no sense to fault the text for what it fails to include. Its aim is not to be historically inclusive. And the author, despite his clear erudition, does not make transitions or comparisons the way a scholar is supposed to do. One might say that he is not well-schooled, but that seems not to be true. One might say that he belongs to no school, or that he is his own school – and both of those claims would seem to be true. What I take to be his over-riding purpose in this book with breathtaking range is to establish a set of modifications in the practice of “avowal” by which veridiction (speaking the truth, le dire vrai) becomes increasingly linked with jurisdiction in penal practices. In the 6th of these lectures, he claims first that in the Middle Ages the practice of avowal was consolidated and expanded such that regimes of veridiction became integrated with technologies of the subject.

Foucault opens these lectures by posing a general question about the problem of subjectivation: how does the individual find him or herself bound to the power that is exerted over him or herself? Government functions through the production of forms of discursive and institutional power that lay out the terms by which individuals constitute themselves as subjects of their own conduct. They are subjects in the sense of agents, but also subjected to a form of power through which their action becomes legible as the action of a subject. Such subjects are not unilaterally produced as the effect of power. Rather, one ties oneself to forms of power that are imposed, which means that power works in at least two directions; it is imposed by an authority that is outside and more powerful than the subject itself; that imposition only works if the subject binds him or herself to those terms of power, and forms itself through those terms. How and why do we bind ourselves, and what kind of tie is this?   And are we in some sense bound to this discourse prior to any act by which we bind ourselves? How important is this reflexive act of self-constitution to the effective operation of power and discourse? Can we also consider what it means to loosen those ties?   Does one unfasten of delink oneself from such terms, and does that imply a process of de-constituting oneself as a subject? Does such a de-constituting do away with reflexivity, or is it another order of reflexivity, one that challenges the legibility of the subject itself?

The situations that Foucault analyzes are precisely those in which the person who avows what he has done (the criminal), what he feels (the lover), and who he is (the mad person), performs a self-totalization in front of the one who demands this very avowal. In other words, self-constitution as a discrete and fully determined identity such as criminal or homosexual or mad person, involves giving oneself over to a discourse that comes from an authority. It also has to be understood as a mode of address. One avows what one has done, what one feels, or who one is, to someone, even if that other is anonymous or imaginary. Avowal is a scene of address – it is directed to someone. But more than that, it is a response to an interpellation, a way of responding to having been addressed. “Yes, you are right: I am what you say I am.” One concedes something; one gives up resistance; one delivers oneself into the hands of a discourse that confirms the authority of the one who has asked one to constitute oneself in the terms of that discourse. But there is always a “you” who bespeaks that discourse, who becomes a figure for the discourse – an anthropocentric figure who speaks to you and before whom, to whom, one speaks.

For Foucault, in this late work, if I take on the name, the category, that I am given by someone, someone who speaks and enforces a discourse of power, I bind myself to that name, and to that identitarian truth of who I am. Whatever heterogeneity characterizes experience for me is consolidated, and my experience becomes my experience as this identity that I am.   This happens gradually in at least two ways. I more and more bind myself to that truth, which means that more and more I become consolidated under this rubric. I become increasingly unthinkable and unrecognizable without reference to that truth. Secondly, that requirement to avow spreads more broadly across society, so that more and more people act in the same way that I do, and that practice becomes established as a norm, one that establishes the conditions of social recognizability itself. Everyone avows who he is as an individual, individuality is an emphatically social form, which means that the logic of identity is invoked and reproduced through every such avowal, which means that when I avow an identity, I am bound to others who are doing the same act under a similar constraint. So I am hardly alone when I take on such a discursive category such as criminal or mad or homosexual, since as I take it on, so too do others, and it spreads and consolidates as a norm. So as each of us, through avowing the rightness of the discourse by which we are named, binds ourselves more tightly to the discourse, our speech act becomes less and less an individual act even as it totalizes us as individuals, even though the individual costs are significant. I only become an identity through a repudiation of some kind, and this totalized “I” is this always reckoning with the repudiation that is the implicit and forceful condition of its possibility.